Christa McAuliffe

Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire, was the first private citizen to be selected for space shuttle travel. The Challenger’s immediate ill fate on January 28, 1986 took Christa’s life and bright future, but her short history is that of the ideal public educator.

Christa McAuliffe’s official NASA photo. (Photo courtesy of NASA / Public Domain)

Writer’s note: As a New Hampshirite, I grew up viewing Christa McAuliffe as a near-deity. Her life and her death have been in my consciousness since a middle-school field trip to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH, where Christa’s mother, Grace Corrigan, was the director. I think of her often, and have viewed her as one of my ultimate role models. As someone who was constantly inspired by my teachers, the idea of such a truly dedicated and loving teacher struck a deep chord with me. Though her story is well-known, I must include her in Unsung Histories as a testament to her importance to me on a personal level. As Bob Hohler wrote, “[Christa] made me wish she taught every child.” That’s how I feel about Christa, too.

Sharon Christa Corrigan was born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 2, 1948, to parents Edward and Grace Corrigan, and was raised in nearby Framingham. She was the eldest of five children and immediately developed a nurturing spirit. She received her BA from Framingham State College (now University), her mother’s alma mater, in 1970 and began teaching English, American history, and civics in junior high schools in Maryland. She married lawyer Steven McAuliffe and they had two children, Scott, born in 1976, and Caroline, born in 1979. Christa, already a working mother, received her MA in Education from Bowie State College in Maryland in 1978 and then moved to Concord, NH, where she began teaching high school English, economics, law, American history, and her own personally-developed course called “The American Woman.” Christa’s entire life was truly, passionately devoted to teaching. She was a board member of several teaching associations: the New Hampshire Council of Social Studies, the National Council of Social Studies, the Concord Teachers Association, the New Hampshire Education Association, and the National Education Association. She volunteered as a host family for A Better Chance program, which housed inner-city students. She was a Christian church-goer and fundraised for both the Concord Hospital and the Concord YMCA. She was the picturesque citizen of both New Hampshire and the country.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space program, which aimed to put a teacher on the space shuttle as a payload specialist, so that they could then relay their experiences to their students. In the grand scheme, it was an effort to engage American youth with science and space exploration by putting one of the most important people in their lives, a teacher, into space. On May 22, 1985, NASA announced that the 11,000 candidates had been narrowed down to 114 teachers from the 50 states, the US territories, the Department of Defense and Department of State overseas schools, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Each state, territory, and agency selected two candidates. Those 114 then spent a week at a NASA workshop in Washington so that they could engage their students back home with the space shuttle program. 10 semifinalists were narrowed down from there, receiving medical exams and briefings at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. On July 19, 1985, Christa McAuliffe was announced as the primary candidate for the NASA Teacher in Space Program, with Barbara Morgan as her back-up. She was to be the first private citizen in space. Christa’s goal was to film science lessons while in space, which could then be distributed to classrooms.

(From left to right) Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, Mike Smith, and Ellison Onizuka, the crew of Challenger. (Photo courtesy of NASA / Public Domain)

Challenger launched at 11:38AM on January 28, 1986. One minute and 13 seconds after the launch, a failure in the O-rings caused the shuttle to explode, killing Christa and her fellow astronauts Commander Dick Scobee, Pilot Mike Smith, Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist Judy Resnik, Mission Specialist Ron McNair, and Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis. It would have been the first spaceflight for McAuliffe, Smith, and Jarvis. NASA cancelled the Teacher in Space Program in 1990, and launched the Educator Astronaut Project in 1998.

Bob Hohler, a reporter for the Concord Monitor, spent seven months with Christa before her death; everyone in New Hampshire followed her story especially closely. He was taking photographs of her parents at Cape Canaveral when he heard the boom. On January 29, 1986, he wrote, “Christa McAuliffe died yesterday with a few of her favorite things: her son’s stuffed frog, her daughter’s cross and chain, her grandmother’s watch, her Carly Simon tape. She died with little things. Ordinary things.”

After Christa’s death, her parents became her biggest champions. Her mother, Grace Corrigan, told Mel Allen for Yankee Magazine in 2011, “I just feel she was doing so much good for those kids. If I can help, just by carrying her message, that’s what she was striving for…It was something we believed in, and we were doing it for her because she wasn’t there. You know, if we weren’t going to do it, who would? Who would make people stop and think, ‘This is important?’ School is important. Teachers are important. It was something she just couldn’t finish…If a school calls and wants me to talk, there’s no way I should just sit home, not if I can still carry Christa’s message.” Ed Corrigan passed away in 1990, but Grace Corrigan continued to spend decades sharing Christa’s message until her passing in 2018.

In 2004, Christa McAuliffe, along with the other Challenger crew members, posthumously received the Congressional Space Medal Of Honor. Barbara Morgan, Christa’s back-up on the Challenger flight, completed her first successful spaceflight in 2007. This year, in 2021, the US Mint is minting a silver dollar of Christa. The obverse side features a portrait of her, while on the reverse side Christa, alongside students, points to the sky, her hand surrounded by seven stars to symbolize the seven Challenger crew members. At the top, Christa McAuliffe’s infamous motto: “I touch the future. I teach.”

Barbara Morgan and Christa McAuliffe. (Photo courtesy of NASA / Public Domain)

Material sourced from:
https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/mcauliffe.pdf
https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/mcauliff.htm
https://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/07/us/a-reporter-s-notebook-a-memory-of-mcauliffe.html
https://www.edweek.org/education/114-teachers-to-compete-for-chance-to-be-first-private-citizen-in-space/1985/05 (Includes the full list of teachers)
https://newengland.com/yankee-magazine/living/profiles/christa-mcauliffe-nh/ (An interview with Grace Corrigan, highly recommended)
https://www.unionleader.com/news/human_interest/christa-mcauliffes-curiosity-lives-on-in-hometown-34-years-after-challenger-disaster/article_ced238ec-e987-5a51-a2c6-fd44d50f7791.html
https://newengland.com/today/living/new-england-history/classic-christa-mcauliffe/ (Reporter Bob Hohler recalling his 7 months shadowing Christa before her death, highly recommended)

Further reading:
A Journal for Christa by Grace Corrigan
I Touch the Future by Robert Hohler

Further watching:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dQ_sxWSaDY (An 18-minute documentary on Christa, narrated by Burgess Meredith)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zJ84mqaRDA (Christa on the Today show in 1985)
Challenger: The Final Flight, a 4-part documentary on Netflix

Bonus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQa1muFeP7I (Silent Key by Frank Turner, a song about Christa, with Esmé Patterson as Christa’s voice)


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